Statement against Acquiring the Philippine Islands, c. January-February 1900
On February 15, 1898, a mysterious explosion decimated the USS Maine, a battleship stationed off the coast of Spanish-controlled Cuba. US politicians and newspapers were quick to accuse Spain of sabotage, although there was no evidence that the explosion was anything other than an accident. US citizens, who already opposed Spain's colonial rule in the Western hemisphere, demanded retaliation. On April 25, the United States declared war on the Spanish. Less than a year later, a battered Spain conceded by signing the Treaty of Paris and handing over all of its colonies to the United States. Suddenly, Americans had inherited an overseas empire stretching from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia. Despite America's own origins as an oppressed colony of Britain, it enforced harsh imperial policies in its new territories, particularly in the Philippines.
Although under the control of the American government, Filipinos were not granted the same rights enjoyed by people living within the borders of the continental United States. A vocal minority of Americans believed that newly acquired land and people should be offered the same protections as every other American citizen, including freedom of speech and assembly. Many of these critics of US policy joined the Anti-Imperialist League, which was founded in 1898 to oppose the colonization of the Philippines by the United States. In this 1900 speech, Moorfield Storey, an executive committee member of the organization, argued that the imperial expansion of the United States was morally incompatible with the nation's principles.
Of course, pro-imperialists made loud, and ultimately persuasive, arguments in favor of keeping the Philippines as a colony. An official survey taken by the head of the first Philippine Commission found that Filipinos were "not ready" for self-government, in spite of the fact that they had been promised independence at the beginning of the Spanish-American War. The United States declared the Philippines a "protectorate," giving it autonomy to make its own democratic government while defending it from European influences. Unsatisfied with this arrangement, Filipinos transitioned from fighting against Spanish oppression to fighting against American subjugation in a bloody revolutionary war. Thousands were killed by the time US forces crushed the rebellion. The Philippines would not gain independence until the Treaty of Manila in 1946.
In truth, the United States had a history of imperialism long before the Philippine-American War. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 established the United States as the Western hemisphere's sole power. Manifest Destiny propelled settlers west through the continent until, in the mid-19th century, they finally reached the Pacific Ocean. Whether through armed conflict such as the Mexican-American War or the decimation of Native American populations by disease and forced relocation, Americans have always displaced others in order to expand.
In many ways, Storey’s speech shows how both sides of the imperialism debate invoked American history to support their arguments. The United States grew from a colonial revolution but only became the country it is today through constant expansion and subjugation. At times America has isolated itself from world affairs, whereas it has taken on the role of international police force at other times. Storey's speech proves that even in the darkest moments of America's imperial history, there is always a voice demanding consistency and freedom.
David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, "Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896-1900," Independent Review 4 (2000): 555-575.
Liberty and Anti-Imperialism, Michael Patrick Cullinane, Northumbria University, accessed November 2012, www.antiimperialist.com.
"The Spanish-American War and Its Consequences," US History Online Textbook, accessed November 2012, www.ushistory.org/us/44d.asp.
Moorfield Storey, Is It Right? An Address Delivered at the Philadelphia Conference, February 23, 1900 (Chicago: American Anti-Imperialist League, 1900).